Le Corbusier (1887-1965)
From Purism as Painting to Purism as Architecture
To use the term “Art Deco” today is to introduce an anachronism, because to the extent that the style of this period had a name at all it was “Art Moderne,” a name used in the 1920s and 1930s. In contrast, the architecture by the small group of radical architects is always termed “modern” to distinguish its extreme modernity, which was based upon construction and structure, as a contrast to the surface decoration of the descendent of Cubism, called Art Moderne. To reinforce the difference, an Art Deco building—and there are only a few in Paris today—can be identified by certain applied decorations, usually simple geometric shapes, while the modern building comes, not from painting but from architecture, reduced to its most minimal elements: walls, floors, ceilings, openings—windows and doors–organized within an open cube. Inspired by the assembly line of a factory where standardized parts could be combined as modules, the “home” had been transformed from a hand-built structure that reflected the rituals of life inside to a machine-made structure made according to the demands of the mechanics themselves. The architect Le Corbusier, a prolific writer, sometime painter, waded decisively into the contemporary debate over the rule of architecture in the early twentieth century. In a time when France was intent upon honoring tradition, Le Corbusier was determined to redefine the domestic domicile. “A house,” he famously intoned, “is a machine for living.”
This quotation does not mean a home filled with machines but an architectural design based upon the efficiency of machines which were automated, identical and composed of modular parts that had to be similar and interchangeable but with each element having a specialized function. The machine is purposeful and direct with all its wheels and gears moving in unison, working towards a single goal. In its plainness, its refusal to appeal to the viewer through surface blandishments, Le Corbusier’s offering to tThe International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Arts in 1925, the Pavilion de l’Esprit Nouveau, named after his magazine of the same name, was stubbornly unclad or naked. A small cubed structure, constructed paradoxically out of wood and then coated with white stucco for cleanliness and contemporaneity, the Pavilion stood as far outside the official boundaries of the exposition itself as possible but also near the Grand Palais. The officials grudgingly granted the Swiss architect among their midst the worst site on the Left Bank, but despite the independence of the architect’s offering to the public, the horrified officials of the Fair erected a twenty-foot high fence to shield the eyes of causal passersby from the offending sight of the modern. The French Minister of Fine Arts, however, removed the barrier.
If one were not offended by radical architecture and dared to enter the Pavilion, it would become clear that the project was not just a modern house, a “machine,” a machine à habiter, where one could live a contemporary existence, but was also a didactic exercise that explained the concepts and philosophy of Le Corbusier. The main room, a display of modern living, provided a view of the way in which the interior had been constructed on two levels. The second story was opened by a loft balcony punctuated by a carved sculpture on a pedestal cantilevered from the railing edge. For those who had no idea of how to furnish such a dwelling with its open and free plan, he selected appropriate furnishings and arranged the rooms into areas of activity with modular bookcases or storage units which broke up the open space of the room. Building the machine for living was simple enough. Le Corbusier, inspired by monastery architecture, simply designed an open cell, which could be arranged and or partitioned according to the owner’s needs. These dividers cum furniture were as open and light weight as the plan ilbre The Pavilion was a case study, presented to an audience aware of the need to update housing in Europe. Designed as a “base cell,” the home could be duplicated endlessly as modules or “Immeuble Villas.” The international jury awarded the Pavilion first prize; but the French Academy, offended by the brazen challenge to tradition, vetoed the gesture, bringing instant fame and publicity to Le Corbusier.
Le Corbusier sought totality or at least compatibility between the modern open space, the design of the pavilion and the furnishings through his own designs. These designs were, like the modular spaces themselves were cubic. In the 1920s, modern furniture was being invented, mostly by architects who, like Le Corbusier, were forced, as it were, to make the kind of furniture that would be aesthetically in harmony with a white cube free of ornamentation. As was the custom with Art Nouveau when the artist and architect always sought a “total work of art,” Echoing the work of Marcel Breuer who was also experimenting with bent steel tubing at the Bauhaus as early as 1925, Le Corbusier finally designed his own line of furniture, leather chairs and sofas regimented into cube shapes which echoed the geography of the rooms or cells in his homes by 1928. These soft cubes with their rigid shapes were further constrained by tubular steel frames, exhibited on the outside as if clutching the organic material to keep them under control. In the Pavilion, however, Le Corbusier used Thornet chairs, a bent wood chair he particularly liked and used in his own home, designed in 1923 and, in the house he designed for the Wiessenhof Estate in 1927. Although in the 1930s, the architect designed his own bentwood chair, he deliberately chose the Thornet chairs, side chairs and dining room table chairs, for the Pavilion in 1925 because they were familiar and famous and ubiquitous. In fact, this chair was an accent piece, reinforcing, not the horizontals and verticals of the interior of the Pavilion but the curves of the still lives of the paintings hanging on the walls. Hanging above a suspended cantilevered shelf was a Purist work by the architect, while nearby were important paintings by close colleagues, Fernand Léger and Juan Gris. These paintings were part of the conservative post-cubist art that looked beyond the pre-war avant-garde.
The architect himself had been a painter, working originally under his “real” name, Charles-Édouard Jeanneret. The movement he began with the painter Amédée Ozenfant was called “Purism,” an indication of a return to classicism and a rejection of Cubism. The still life paintings produced by Jeanneret, who was wise to move on to architecture and become Le Corbusier, were curves, circles and all things round, compared to the angles and shards of Cubism. Ozenfant and Jeanneret made their debut as intellectual and artistic partners, in the fall of 1918 and announced their opposition to Cubism in their catalog essay, “Après le Cubisme.” In contrast to the cubism of Picasso and Braque, who deconstructed ordinary objects, Jeanneret presented each product in full, without complications, in a straightforward perspective. The objects depicted were “Types” of standard mass manufactured guitars bottles jugs and so on, reflecting the ideas of the artists who sought the purity of universal shapes. These shapes, simple and basic, were those suitable for mass manufacture and industry and the clean and undecorated surfaces, flattened on the canvas by the artist were the only ones proper and fitting for an industrial age. When the artists issued their manifesto for Purism in 1920, they stressed logic and order and the laws that governed form. To publicize the movement, they also published a journal, L’Esprit Nouveau, published from 1920 to 1925, which stressed the historical lineage of contemporary French art. The magazine announced itself by proclaiming that, “L’Esprit Nouveau is the first magazine in the world truly dedicated to living aesthetics.” The idea of ideal Platonic forms would be a guide to understanding the reasoning found in L’Esprit Nouveau. The artists themselves used the term “primary elements,” or the simple and basic shapes, the circle, the triangle, the square and the three-dimensional shapes that would result, the sphere, the cone, and the cube. In the 1925 Pavilion, the architect had reinvented himself as Le Corbusier, but his thinking was the same, and he applied the ideal form to architecture, and, predictably, to the furnishing of the interior. The lines of the wood may have been bent into curves, but it was the concept of a common chair or an ideal chair based on an idea shape—the circle–that attracted Le Corbusier, who stressed the importance of thinking in terms of “type” for modern building. As opposed to the decorative art—the theme of the exhibition—which the artist abhorred, he used “real” materials from the real world of modern industry. One of the sponsors of the Pavilion was Ingersoll-Rand, an American company that manufactured a cement gun, crucial in mass housing. This firm advertised in the 1925 issue of the artist’s Almanac d’architecture modern. Standardization was the key to rebuilding France, redefining the city of Paris as modern, through the multiplication of cells—inspired by the living quarters of a monk—an assemblage of geometric shapes, a typical cube, which could be arranged and rearranged in endless variation. The assembly of prefabricated units could be confined to a single dwelling or expanded into an entire city. And by 1922, Le Corbusier began to plan the new city for the new century.
If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.